Gay bashing signals Indonesia's growing intolerance of minorities

Gay bashing has become the newest favourite pastime in Indonesia, a nation that once prided itself on its record of tolerance.

This past month, the national news has been filled with daily attacks against a group of people known as LGBT - lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

Everyone seems to be doing it. Everyone wants to have their say.

The attacks are not confined to social media where everything and anything goes. Anti-gay venom is also to be found in the nation's mainstream newspapers and TV stations.

The public square has never been this suffocating.


The few voices defending the rights of LGBTs are being drowned out, or rather bullied, by the growing chorus that has turned the LGBT community into Indonesia's public enemy No. 1.

The public square has become a ground to taunt and harass minorities. Free speech means freedom to bash and spread hatred. Indonesia's democracy has turned into a tyranny of the majority.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) movement, globally regarded as a menacing threat, has not received similar harsh public lashings in Indonesia, not even after the deadly terrorist attack in Jakarta in January for which the Syria-based group claimed responsibility.

As far as Indonesians are concerned, the LGBT community is the bigger threat because it concerns the nation's morality and, therefore, its existence and its future.

The national anti-gay bashing has reached a crescendo that silences not only members of the LGBT community, but also those who have traditionally preached tolerance and spoken up for the rights of minorities being persecuted.

Foreigners, who in the past have lavished praise on Indonesia for its record of religious tolerance and moderation, will have a hard time recognising the country.

It is hard to believe, but the government is actually leading the anti-LGBT campaign, with one senior official after another going on public record to express distaste and loathing of gay people.

The official gay bashing began in late January when Mr Muhammad Nasir, the Minister of Research and Technology and Higher Education, declared that LGBTs should be banned in college campuses.

His ridiculous attempt at clarification later, saying that he banned only LGBTs from having sex on campus, did not help. It mattered little anyway for he had effectively opened the floodgates to unleash the waves of gay bashing that no one seems able to stop.

Other ministers soon joined in. Mr Yuddy Chrisnandi, who is in charge of state administrative reforms, said LGBTs should be banished from the civil service.

Some engaged in half-hearted if not disingenuous attempts at understanding LGBTs, but never completely accepting their presence.

After recognising that what gay people did in private should not concern the government, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla asked the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to stop funding LGBT activities. He admitted that he was not aware of any UNDP money coming to Indonesia for such purposes, but he had to say it anyway.

Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security Luhut Pandjaitan had first said that LGBTs are citizens who should be protected by the state. A few days later, however, the former army general described homosexuality as a "disease" that needed curing.

The most venomous attack came from former communication and information minister and Islamist politician Tifatul Sembiring, who, in one of his Friday sermon Twitter postings, quoted a hadith (saying) of Prophet Muhammad that called for the killing of gay couples.

The award for the most ridiculous statement goes to Mr Arief Wismansyah, the mayor of Tangerang township adjacent to Jakarta, who said eating too much instant noodles can lead to homosexuality. Incidentally, whether he is aware of it or not, Indonesia is the world's largest producer and exporter of instant noodles.

Religious leaders who had led the nation's previous moral campaigns have taken a backseat for a change in the current LGBT bashing.

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) has issued a fatwa (religious edict) declaring LGBT as haram (forbidden under Islam) and describing it as a form of crime.

LGBTs cannot turn to those who have traditionally spoken up for persecuted minorities. Not this time. The LGBT issue is just too hot to handle.

Catholic priest Romo Magnis Suseno, a staunch defender of the rights of religious minorities, spoke in defence of LGBTs but, in the same article published in Kompas, he said he opposes same-sex marriage. Of course he does, but the issue in Indonesia is a non-starter. Few gays have come out of the closet in staunchly conservative Indonesia. No one is advocating same-sex marriage in Indonesia, at least not openly.

His mere mention of gay marriage nevertheless helped to further instigate the fear that the anti-gay campaign is spreading about the dangers of LGBT, even though Indonesia is nowhere close to even discussing the issue in public, let alone legalising such marriages.

Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamist social organisation and considered to be the country's last bastion of tolerance, has hopped on the gay-bashing bandwagon by calling on the government to criminalise LGBT activities.

Inevitably, discrimination and persecution have followed on the heels of the vocal bashing.

The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission has written to the nation's TV stations demanding that they remove all programmes featuring cross-dressers and "effeminate" men. The TV networks quickly complied.

A pesantren (Islamic boarding school) for transgenders to study the Quran in the central Java city of Yogyakarta has been shut down following threats of violence.

The LGBT community is practically alone in fighting for its existence and survival. Its members are vulnerable and defenceless. Except for a few activists and human rights groups, hardly anyone has spoken up in their defence.

The Constitution, which guarantees freedoms and rights for all citizens, including the right to state protection, is no shield, especially not when the government is leading the bashing campaign.

Forget the police. Going by past experiences in handling persecuted minorities, they would make criminals of the victims for causing public unrest.

Indonesia's claim to be the world's third-largest democracy must have become highly questionable by now when minorities fear for their lives, without guarantee of state protection. The public square has become a ground to taunt and harass minorities. Free speech means freedom to bash and spread hatred.

Indonesia's democracy has turned into a tyranny of the majority.

LGBTs are the latest targets of Indonesia's growing intolerance. Other groups that have felt the brunt include the followers of Ahmadiyah and Shi'ite Islam, whom the Muslim Sunni majority regard as blasphemous to Islam.

In January, the government led the public campaign against Fajar Nusantara Movement (Gafatar), a spiritual cult that encourages its rapidly growing members to lead a communal lifestyle in rural areas. After government officials described the group as a threat to national security, one of their communities in West Kalimantan province was attacked by a mob of more than 5,000 people.

The police did come to the rescue by providing the cult members a safe passage out of their housing complex, only to allow the mob to move in and raze their property. For good measure, the police detained some of the Gafatar leaders. The real criminals - those who did the attacking - walked away scot-free.

Intolerance is rapidly spreading and growing in intensity without the government seemingly able or even having the political will to stop it.

This dates back to the time of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, when intolerance started to creep in without the government lifting a finger to stop the attacks against minorities. After each success, the attackers became more bold and sought their next target.

This time, they are going after the LGBTs.

Things will get worse for sure, but will they eventually get better?

There is one last hope: President Joko Widodo, whose oath of office clearly stipulates his obligation to protect all citizens.

So far, he has been sitting on the fence as the gay bashing, led by his own ministers, took place. Now seems like a good time for the President to step in and speak up, one way or another.

• The writer is editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'Gay bashing signals Indonesia's growing intolerance of minorities'. Print Edition | Subscribe